On the sixth day of our trip we travelled 1.5 hours from Mae Sot to Umpheim (Umpiem Mai), the second largest of nine Burmese refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Umpheim is located in Phop Phra District in Tak Province, 10 kilometres from the Burma border. UNHCR estimates that 96,800 registered refugees and 53,000 unregistered refugees live within the nine camps. Approximately 25,000 people live in Umpheim.
Umpheim was first established in 1999 following the relocation of two former camps, Wangka and Mawker camps, following repeated attacks on both camps by the Burmese forces. In 1998, Wanka camp was 80% burnt to the ground and 4 people were killed. The camp had also faced attacks by the Burmese army in previous years. Umpheim camp was established by the Thai authorities amidst these security concerns. Despite the serious risks of remaining in other camps, some people chose to not relocate to Umpheim in the early years due to its harsh terrain, torrential rain and cold climate (Umpheim is located at an altitude of 1100 metres).
On our visit, we met with an incredible group of students. Most of the students we met were not registered refugees but one of our students was proud to tell us he was lucky to have registration with UNHCR after having spent 18 years of his life in different camps. His registration as a refugee means he has the opportunity of relocation in the future.
Most of Umpheim’s residents have fled serious abuse within Burma. A recurring theme emerged in our conversations with the students: that the Burmese army had attacked and burned down their homes forcing them to flee to safety. Many of Umpheim’s residents have witnessed atrocities and the death of family members. Umpheim’s 25,000 residents live in a state of limbo, unable to return to their homes in Burma due to ongoing conflict. As most residents are not recognised as refugees in Thailand their lives are contained within the camp borders. Many people in Umpheim have spent the greater part of their lives in the camp. Many of the children were born in Umpheim.
We had small group discussions with our students and were then treated to a lunch of Burmese pastries and tea. The students then guided us on a tour of the camp for the remainder of the day where we visited the various sections of Umpheim.
We were first struck by the sheer size of Umpheim as we approached the camp on the winding road from Mae Sot. Umpheim is perched on the side of a mountain and different sections of the camp are linked by a series of steep paths and bamboo bridges. I was told that falls leading to serious injury, particularly in the wet season, are not uncommon within the camp. I saw an elderly man walking with a stick with slow, measured steps along a straight dry path and wondered how long it had been since he’d been able to visit other parts of the camp that would not now be accessible to him. While many of the older people are able to navigate the goat tracks during dry season, the wet season renders much of the camp inaccessible for the elderly or disabled and this rainy period isolates large numbers of people to their respective sections of the camp. Huts, precariously balanced on the hillsides, are often washed away during the harsh rainy season. Projects to prevent soil erosion have been undertaken in recent years to improve conditions.
During our guided tour our students shared with us their dreams for the future. A small number of Umpheim residents will be resettled over the coming year. Many of those being relocated are anxious about moving to foreign cultures, leaving behind their language and customs. The dream, at least among the students we spoke with that day, was not for relocation but to one day return to their homes in Burma.
The students took us through the marketplace and along a bridge built by former students of IEP. We had the opportunity to visit classrooms of the junior high school, watch a man weave beautiful fabric for longhi and meet with the Chief Medical Officer of Umpheim’s hospital. He highlighted that the hospital was only able to address relatively minor conditions with more serious cases needing to be transferred the distance to Mae Sot Hospital for treatment. Common injuries and illnesses at the clinic varied depending on the season but the hospital routinely battled cases of malaria and tuberculosis and treated injuries from falls, other accidents and green viper bites.
I don’t think anyone in our group came away from our visit to Umpheim unchanged. It was sad to say goodbye to our students. It had felt like we’d built strong bonds in such a short period of time. One of my students had told me his dream was to return to Burma and start a tourist agency. As we said goodbye to the students at their dormitory before we headed down the goat track, he yelled out, ‘See you again!’ and then added, ‘In Burma.. when Burma is free’.